Rev. John Gregory Davis called on “Passover Prophets and Resurrection Resisters” to bring a message of social justice to the New Hampshire State House at the United Church of Christ New Hampshire Conference’s second Advocacy Day, April 19. And that’s what they did. Meeting at South Congregational Church in Concord, a few dozen UCC members and friends honed their advocacy skills for most of the morning and then set off for the State House, four blocks away.
Several activists associated with the United Valley Interfaith Project joined up with others from the Granite State Organizing Project to testify against SB 160, one of two bills that threaten to bring back predatory payday and car title loans, allowing interest rates as high as 403%.
“We are here because SB 160 brings usury — something we as people of faith have opposed for thousands of years — back into New Hampshire,” Rod Wendt and Glinda Allen told the House Commerce Committee. “SB 160 will bring back predatory lending practices that will entrap poor people, people with little education and financial sophistication, in a downward spiral of debt. As people of faith, we find this exploitation of the poorest and most vulnerable among us totally inconsistent with the values we hold dear — of caring for the poor, being our brother’s keeper, showing compassion.”
In addition to attending hearings and talking with legislators in the State House Cafeteria, participants swelled the ranks of Interfaith Voices for a Humane Budget, the group that has conducted vigils outside meetings of the Senate Finance Committee since the beginning of April. Today, the vigil moved to the Senate’s Ways and Means Committee, whose revenue estimates will determine whether the Senate chooses to slash the budgets for essential services as deeply as the House did. “We are called to bring kindness and compassion to all those places where it has been lost,” said the Rev. Larry Brickner-Wood, of the UNH United Campus Ministry, in one of several prayers offered in the hallway outside State House Room 100, where Senate Ways and Means holds its meetings.
Sadly, furthering exploitation of the poorest and most vulnerable among us appears to be entirely consistent with the priorities of legislative leaders, at least in the NH House, which approved its version of the budget March 31. State Senators are still deliberating over the budget, and will hold public hearings in Representatives Hall Thursday from 2 to 4 PM and again from 6 to 8 PM. Whether they will respond to the urgent pleas of those who depend on taxpayer-supported programs for services that enable dignified lives remains to be seen.
Before then, the Senate will show its colors when it votes tomorrow morning on the proposal to turn New Hampshire into a Right-to-Work (for LESS) state, as defined by HB 474. This anti-union, anti-worker agenda has been defeated consistently for at least three decades. But this year, legislators hostile to organized workers appear to have the upper hand.
What was clear today is that anti-union legislation will not pass with the cooperation of the state’s faith community. Outside Room 100, UCC clergy and lay members made it clear to Senator Bob O’Dell, whose vote could be key, that they oppose Right-to-Work.
Senators have already indicated that they will delete from the House-passed budget a provision stripping effective collective bargaining rights from public sector workers. But another provisi0n with similar intent is contained in HB 580, a House-passed measure on public employee pensions. This one says that when collective bargaining agreements (union contracts) expire, “the continuation … of any medical, dental, and life insurance benefits, retirement and pension benefits, and any other fringe benefits shall be subject to the exclusive authority of the public employer. “ In other words, an employer who refuses to bargain can unilaterally cancel benefits workers have been counting on receiving. Senators who thought such language was not appropriate for the budget rider bill, HB 2, might have a different attitude for similarly pernicious provisions in a pension bill.
Gail Kinney, a member of the UCC’s Commission on Witness and Action, calls the anti-union agenda moving through the legislature a “wholesale attack on the middle class.”
“The undermining of working families is feeding the vast economic divide in the U.S. Multiple polls show this attack on workers is not what the public signed on for when it changed political horses in 2010. This is a struggle for economic fairness, balance, and healthy communities that should be of real concern to people of faith,” she said.
The Interfaith Voices vigil resumes Thursday during the Senate Finance Committee’s budget hearing.